It was hard to reach Khyentse Norbu, Tibetan spiritual leader-turned-film director, as he traveled from his native Bhutan to Sydney, Australia, then to Tokyo and Honolulu on his way to the Miami International Film Festival, where his latest film, Travellers and Magicians, was screened at the Gusman Theater last month.
His jet-setting ways are quite a departure from his life of quiet contemplation in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the country that inspired the fictitious Shangri-La in James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon. It was in the tiny kingdom, nestled between China and India, that he was enthroned at age 7 as the reincarnation of revered 19th century saint and reformer Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo.
The Lama H.E. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, as he is known by his followers, is a revered teacher who studied under the 14th Dalai Lama and has dedicated his life to teaching Buddhism.
But we still want to know if a Tibetan lama can hang on to his serenity while he schmoozes with celebrities and producers at film festivals. "Well, I have to get up an hour and a half before everyone else and do my meditation," he said affably when we finally located him for this interview in Honolulu. But this is not an ordinary monk.
After all, he counts among his favorite films Kill Bill and Natural Born Killers. "We all have preconceived ideas about Tibetan monks, but he defies most preconceptions," said producer Mal Watson. "He is witty and wise. A great teacher."
Born in Bhutan in the Year of the Metal Ox (1961), Norbu is an inveterate movie buff who admits to carrying around a VCR and tapes of Truffaut's 400 Blows and Cocteau's Blood of a Poet. While studying at London's School of Oriental and African studies in 1998, he was hired as a consultant for Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha. "Bertolucci had heard that there was a Tibetan lama in London who was obsessed with film," recalls Norbu. "And he found me."
The collaboration with Bertolucci proved fruitful in more ways than one. It was through the contacts he made while working on Little Buddha that Norbu was able to finance his first feature film. Based on real events, The Cup displays the lighter side of monastic life, as a soccer-obsessed young monk is determined to rent a satellite dish and have it installed in time to watch the World Cup final between France and Brazil.
Since there are no actors in Bhutan, Norbu had no choice but to cast real monks in the film. It proved an inspired neorealist touch. This gentle, upbeat fable of the cultural clash between East and West in a Tibetan monastery charmed audiences worldwide. The Cup had its world premier at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999 and traveled to the Miami Film Festival a year later. Distributed in 40 countries, the film earned Norbu international critical acclaim.
Was Norbu surprised at the film's success? "I was surprised that the film was made at all, since I don't have any film background," he said. "But seeing it screened at some of the most important film festivals in the world was an even bigger surprise."
He is especially delighted that his cinematic debut helped demystify Westerners' perception of Tibetan monks. Norbu had a message for his countrymen as well: "We're in the 21st century," he said. "We have faxes, e-mail, Web sites, telephones, film. Let's make friends with them. They are not a threat."
Adapted from a Buddhist fable, Norbu's latest film, Travellers and Magicians, is more philosophical and somber than his previous offering. "I don't want to claim there's a profound spiritual teaching in the film, but I can always learn something out of anything that involves life," he said.
Shot entirely in Bhutan, the film premiered in Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital, in August and has already been shown at the Venice, Toronto, Sao Paolo and London film festivals and at the Buddhist Film Festival in Los Angeles.
The film tells the tale of a young man fed up with life in his Bhutanese village. He decides to head to the United States, where he has heard he can make a fortune picking grapes. "You always think that the grass is going to be greener on the other side, but that is a fantasy and hope becomes pain," said the third incarnation of the Khyentse lineage. He adds that the movie is really about Bhutan, "its serenity, its culture, its tradition."
Even as he travels to film festivals around the globe, Norbu continues to teach Buddhist philosophy, found charitable institutions and spend several months a year in strict meditative retreat.
At 42, he doesn't envision being a filmmaker indefinitely, although there is one project he would love to undertake: The life of Buddha. "For it to be authentic I would have to cast the right actor. I will look for an actor in India or Nepal, but who would finance me if this actor isn't a big star? To be successful," he adds philosophically, "I would need to speak the language of Hollywood."